I’m already thinking about 2018. It’s not that my teams are doing poorly; they’re fine, for the most part. It’s that the economist nerd in me, when thinking abut fantasy baseball, most often evaluates the disparities between perceived and actual values, and how long, if ever, it takes for the market (aka fantasy owners) to come to equilibrium, to use economic parlance.
For example: you may or may not be aware that Kevin Gausman, despite his atrocious start to the season, has been magnificent the last five weeks. In seven starts from July 2 onward, he’s posted a 3.24 ERA (supported peripherally by a 2.81 xFIP and 3.40 FIP) with 11.4 strikeouts and 2.6 walks per nine innings. The strikeout rate is fueled by a 15% swinging strike rate (SwStr%), which have come consistently, ascending into double-digit percentages in all seven starts (and in eight of his last nine). His strikeout-to-walk differential (K-BB%) by month: 2.0%, 8.8%, 9.2%, 23.4%, and, in one August start, 28.0%.
Meanwhile, he’s inducing ground balls almost half the time (49.5% GB). You could say he’s due for batting average on balls in play (BABIP) regression, and he probably still is. His BABIP constantly hovering above .349 does not inspire confidence, but few pitchers have ever been BABIP’d so hard in a single season — I discussed this phenomenon in regard to Robbie Ray. All said, while there’s no guarantee his BABIP regresses before October, Gausman still shows the promise we once expected of him — perhaps more — and it’s going largely unnoticed because of his downright repulsive first half. (He’s baseball’s #12 starter the last month.)
Such is the gist of this post, in which I’ll briefly touch upon players I anticipate to have average draft positions (ADPs) in 2018 that will lend themselves to relatively low-risk, high-reward opportunities in standard mixed leagues. Whether such expectations become reality is another story; that’s why I’m relying on ownership levels as a proxy for perceived value. All ownership levels likely retain some amount of draft day inertia, for better or for worse — in other words, leftover ownership (or lack thereof) in abandoned leagues — so take it all with a grain of salt.
Please note this is, by no means, an exhaustive list — just the first few players who come to mind, mostly because I’ve paid close attention to them all season.
Kevin Gausman, BAL SP
(SP51 ESPN, SP69 Fantrax)
P.S. Increased usage of his splitter and its 22.4% whiff rate has helped, but all three (four? five? six?) of his pitches recorded double-digit whiff rates in his latest seven starts. I’m inclined to attribute it to a change in release point and perhaps a different approach in which he’s spotting his fastball higher in the zone and his breaking pitches lower. I’m not so sure about that second part, but given his fastball has also played up since the start of July, I’m willing to humor the idea.
Trevor Cahill, SD SP
(SP104 ESPN, SP98 Fantrax)
Cahill might be the best pick of this whole lot, but he’s also, rather indisputably, the most volatile as of my writing this. In 10 starts (punctuated by a disabled list stint) prior to July 21, the reborn Cahill posted the 22nd-best ERA (3.14) on the backs of the 9th-best xFIP and 18th-best FIP (3.08 and 3.23, respectively). For Cahill, in light of his profound lack of success recently, it was blasphemous just how good he was being — and many of us so-called experts relished his high efficacy and low ownership. Then, his last three starts: 12.1 innings, six K’s, eight walks, an 8.76 ERA. It has been a nightmare, but something is clearly awry — his breaking pitches have suddenly stopped working. He has swiftly gone from low-key must-start to don’t-care must-bench. I’ll watch his next few starts from a distance; if he pulls himself together in the next few weeks, he could shape up to be one of 2018’s best late-round bargains.
Zack Godley, ARI SP
(SP53 ESPN, SP70 Fantrax)
I said Cahill might be the best pick of the lot, but maybe I stand corrected. This is a joke, right? He is on pace for 5+ WAR and has a 2.86 ERA, 56.1% ground ball rate and 14.0% swinging strike rate, and he’s not even among the top-50 most-owned starting pitchers? The season’s #28 pitcher augmented his stock by ramping up the use of his curve (24.7% whiffs, 52.5% GB) and sinker (68.1% GB). The extra whiffs and grounders have done wonders for him, and while his .252 BABIP should eventually betray him, his strikeout rate (K%) could, in response, rise to meet his legitimately elite whiff rate. I don’t know if he’s 2018’s James Paxton, in that Godley will definitely be underpriced, yet everyone will somehow be on him. However, given Godley current trails Paxton by only 7 points of xFIP and 16 points of ERA… well, he very much could be.
Jimmy Nelson, MIL SP
(SP31 ESPN, SP55 Fantrax)
There’s a relatively deep chasm in Nelson’s perceived values by website; ESPN owners value him pretty accurately, whereas Fantrax owners haven’t. (I would argue it’s because of Nelson’s former prospect fanfare, but that’s neither here nor there.) Nelson, like Godley, has unleashed his potential by not only using more of, but also achieving different movement on, his four-seamer and curve, contributing to improved whiff rates for each. He might be pitching over his head a bit, but man, he looks so much better than he did in years’ past. I can’t envision him going higher than SP30 next year, which pretty much locks him in as “undervalued,” at least, if not “everyone’s favorite sleeper.”
(For what it’s worth, I can see Godley going after Nelson in drafts and producing more value in 2018.)
Miguel Cabrera, DET 1B
(1B9 ESPN, 1B13 Fantrax)
Looking at his peripherals, you’d expect Miggy, at 34, to be having his best season ever. His 45.1% hard-hit rate (Hard%), 27.5% line drive rate (LD%) and 2.3% infield pop fly rate (IFFB%) are all the best of his career.Yet he has hit a meager 13 home runs through 405 plate appearances with his batting average sitting below .292 — almost 40 points below — for the first time since his rookie year. Fourteen years ago. Trolls will say Statcast data is more accurate; Baseball Savant pegs Cabrera for the largest differential in his expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) versus his actual (wOBA) of any hitter, and it’s not even close. Among first baseman, his .393 xwOBA would rank fourth among wOBA this season behind Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt and, uh, Justin Smoak. (Cody Bellinger, Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rizzo trail closely behind.) By all measures, Cabrera has been every bit the Hall of Fame hitter he has always been, just with extreme BABIP misfortune. It’s easy to dismiss this as decline, but he isn’t that old and is a generational talent. Assuming, and reasonably, too, that Goldy, Rizzo, Votto, Freddie Freeman and possibly Edwin Encarnacion go before him, I’ll gladly scoop up Miggy as the 6th first baseman (or later, depending on Bellinger’s helium) off the board.
Jonathan Villar, MIL 2B/SS
(SS18 ESPN, SS18 Fantrax)
The 19th overall pick in March is now the 18th shortstop by ownership in August. Such is the devastating collapse of Villar, who can’t drum up the BABIP support he so desperately needs to be truly valuable. His stolen base pace is actually in line with his career body of work if you treat 2016 as an outlier (which, at this point, it absolutely is). Alas, it’s the miserable-for-him BABIP that has once again sank his stock. In five partial seasons, his BABIP, on an annual basis, has been north of .360 or south of .300 (well, .301) and nowhere in between. Almost everything looks normal under the hood; he’s not spraying the ball as much, but in terms of hard hits, line drives, pop-ups, etc., all looks consistent with his breakout 2016 campaign. He strikes out so much that any BABIP deficit leaves him vulnerable to prolonged slumps. This one is especially prolonged. But if his BABIP bounces back to at least his .338 career mark while replicating the same counting stats, he becomes significantly more valuable. Playing time will be a concern, but Eric Sogard has already shown his humanity for some time now. He shouldn’t be anything more than a back-end middle infielder in standard mixed leagues in 2018, making him almost exactly the same bargain he was prior to 2016.
Masahiro Tanaka, NYY SP
(SP27 ESPN, SP22 Fantrax)
Outside of a severe case of homeritis, Tanaka owners are keeping faith, seeing a magnificent 15.0% swinging strike rate that’s fueling his best K-BB% since his stateside debut in 2014. Homers have always been a slight problem for Tanaka, but these allegedly juiced balls have all but ravaged him in 2017. It’s hard to believe he’s making hitters look silly while they returning the favor in tandem — it’s all too extreme and doesn’t pass the smell test for me. Everything looks normal under the hood, and the King of Chased Pitches is making hitters not only chase but also whiff when they chase more now than ever before. He looks really good. It’s just that he also looks really bad. And, somehow, through all of it, the community has valued him (again, as measured by ownership) at only a slight discount to his original ADP of SP18. He should be an interesting and frequent subject of debate come spring.
Danny Salazar, CLE SP
(SP37 ESPN, SP37 Fantrax)
It’s been a rollercoaster of a year for Salazar, who, like Tanaka, has seen his fair share of adversity, yet his ownership reflects only a slight discount on his preseason ADP. (I’m sure if we checked Salazar’s stock three starts ago, it was much less bullish.) Back from a DL stint and some Minor League rehab/mechanical work, Salazar has struck out 28 and walked five in 20 innings, allowing only three earned runs (1.35 ERA) and eight hits (0.65 WHIP) in his three starts. Obviously, there’s some good fortune at play here in terms of his BABIP and strand rate. But let’s not chalk it all up to luck: he came out of Triple-A throwing his filthy slider twice as often and trusting his four-seamer. He’s throwing more strikes and hitting his spots while keeping hitters honest with a loaded arsenal. He is slowly abandoning his sinker, which might be his most tangibly beneficial development. But if can also trust his stuff — in turn, piling up strikeouts while pounding the zone — he becomes every bit as effective as we thought he’d be this year. Please know his 16.2% whiff rate ranks the best among all pitchers who have thrown at least 70 innings in 2017. I’d like to see him resume throwing more change-ups — it’s a filthy, filthy pitch — but if less sinker use and more variety means more success, then I’ll take what I can get.
Jonathan Lucroy, COL C
(C8 ESPN, C8 Fantrax)
Lucroy comes with a lot of question marks, including where he’ll end up in 2017 and, wherever that is, if his signing team thinks he’s still a starter. That’ll depend on the team, and I wager a fringe contender could snatch him up in the hopes of recapturing his former glory. Whether he’s a starter or in a timeshare, there’s no way he’s being drafted higher than 6th among catchers with Buster Posey, Gary Sanchez, Salvador Perez, J.T. Realmuto and Willson Contreras all ousting him from the #2 spot he has held the past two years. If his BABIP bounces back and he hits even a dozen home runs in 2018, it should make him a sure bet to at least break even with what I expect to be a back-end top-10 ADP. And let us not forget that rumors of Lucroy’s decline were greatly exaggerated as recently as 2015. He’s a tumultuous one, that Lucroy. This one is more dubious, but if the price is right — and this assumes it will be — then I’ll dabble.
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Who are your way-too-preemptive value picks for 2018? What do you think of mine? They’re probably not surprising for many of you — you’re here because you’re sharp, or at least that’s what I tell myself — but who knows.